1. Nineteen Forty-Five, I Saw a Bright Light (Daemon)
The first time you hear this, it might sound ordinary; the third or fourth time it can be shattering. There is the heart-on-our-sleeves heedlessness of the Mendoza Line’s “We’re All in This Alone”—but with Nineteen Forty-Five guitarist Hunter Manasco’s scared leads and bassist Katharine McElroy’s handholding backing vocals, none of the Mendoza Line’s irony. In the kind of apartment that’s too small to get clean, Eleventh Dream Day’s “It’s Not My World” has been played so many times that the glory you can only get by opening the window and the self-affirmation you can only get by closing it are in the walls—and so is the lift of the Feelies’ “Raised Eyebrows,” the feeling of going flat-out in a car that has a day left to live. Manasco, McElroy, and drummer Will Lochamy are from Birmingham, Alabama; they look familiar, but you haven’t seen them before.
2. Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis (Scribner)
This compact day-in-the-life novel has been savaged by critics from People to the New York Times as obvious, cheap, empty, and backward. The line is that the hero is a soulless 28-year-old billionaire financial manipulator, and that’s just so three years ago, isn’t it? But he isn’t soulless. Like the detective in Paul Auster’s City of Glass, he’s holding himself together with string and gum, and then he isn’t. The 2000 setting isn’t in the past. It’s the country blowing up in its own face, as it does whenever the individual’s realization of the American dream erases America—a nation that, here, comes together only in the last pages, in the middle of the night, with 300 naked movie extras sprawled in the street.3. Madonna, “American Life” (Warner Bros.)
Question, 1956: “Will I be pretty, will I be rich?” Answer: “Que sera, sera.” Response, 2003: “‘Whatever will be, will be?‘ You call that American? Can’t somebody fix this shit?”
4. Reese Witherspoon in Freeway (1996, Republic Pictures Home Video)
Why you can never remember who won the Oscar a year later: because compared to an unnominatable performance like this, America’s pre-sweetheart as all-time juvenile delinquent, the performances that are nominated (for Freeway‘s year, Brenda Blethlyn, Secrets and Lies; Diane Keaton, Marvin’s Room; Frances McDormand, Fargo; Kristin Scott-Thomas, The English Patient; Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves) barely exist. Southern Tip (Cecily Marcus): “Not even Reese Witherspoon is allowed to be as good as Reese Witherspoon was in Freeway.”
5. Luc Sante, “The Birth of the Blues” (Yeti #2, P.O. Box 3061, Seattle WA 98004, $9.95 postpaid)
Inside this words ‘n’ graphics journal (plus 30-track soundtrack CD) is a displacing argument from underworld historian Sante: that just as geneticists now claim that all living people are descended from a single woman who lived perhaps 140,000 years ago, the blues—“a particular song form made up of 12 measures of three-line verse, with a line length of five stressed syllables and an AAB rhyme scheme” (Charley Patton, 1929: “Hitch up my pony, saddle up my black mare/Hitch up my pony, saddle up my black mare/I’m gonna find a rider, baby, in the world somewhere”)—did not emerge, evolve, develop, or come to be in any folk sense. Sometime in the 1890s, in East Texas or the Mississippi Delta, the blues, which surprised everyone, black and white, “could only have been invented,” by a “particular person or persons,” just as “the x-ray and the zipper and the diesel engine were invented in the same decade” by particular persons. We know their names, though; if the blues was invented, why by 1910 at the latest did nobody know by whom, when, where? Illiteracy, poverty, racism—but also because the blues was so portable that once the first blues singer sang the first blues song to the first blues listener, “it is easy to imagine that within 24 hours a dozen people had taken up the style, a hundred inside of a week, a thousand in the first month. By then only ten people would have remembered who came up with it, and nine of them weren’t talking.”6. Cursive, “Staying Alive” from The Ugly Organ (Saddle Creek)
A one-foot-in-front-of-the-other beginning, then a slow, ten-minute slide into sleep. The band slips into a military march rhythm near the end, and then falls into Angelo Badalamenti’s arrangements for Julee Cruise in Twin Peaks, where the deaths that occur in the music are never final, even if the bodies are buried.
7. KBSG-FM, Seattle (February 25)
Barry Franklin writes: “Yesterday I was standing in the checkout line at a small retail shop on Mercer Island. On a clear day, one can see the Cascades from its window, just 20 miles to the east. Due to the rain clouds, though, the mountains weren’t visible. Talk, among the clerk and those waiting in line, centered on the dark gray clouds and the imminent rain. The radio was tuned to an oldies station, airing the song ‘Rhythm of the Rain’ by the Cascades. I pointed out the exquisite beauty of this moment of synchronicity to my fellow humans who, I think, didn’t quite get it.”
8. Rosanne Cash, Rules of Travel (Capitol)
Great Harlequin Romance cover.9. Porch Ghouls, Bluff City Ruckus (Roman/Columbia)
Great God’s Little Acre trash-paperback-jacket-style cover. A song called “Nine Dollars Worth of Mumble” that’s worth four minutes of your time. And “Girl on the Road (Ford Fairlane),” which goes right over a cliff. Or rather the bluff, which is to say out of Memphis and into the drink.
10. “Eating It” comedy showcase, Luna Lounge (New York City, January 20)
Sarah Vowell writes: “As part of MLK day, they asked the audience to sing along with ‘Ebony and Ivory,’ the white people doing McCartney’s part and the black people Stevie Wonder’s. This meant a whole room drowning out Paul, followed by maybe one sheepish black guy, the only one in the audience, singing along with Stevie. The point being, even us smart, good-hearted New York wiseacres who cringe at the thought of segregation find ourselves socially segregated by default. I had started out the day reading King’s speech to the Memphis sanitation workers, marveling at the way he could call for togetherness without a hint of icky, sappy fakery, and there I was hours later, singing sap. Yet when I was singing my part, singing along with Paul, even though there’s hardly a lamer song, I found myself singing embarrassingly loud.”
City Pages, April 23, 2003